Notre belle université

A few months ago, Baptiste Coulmont posted a sarcastically titled video called “our beautiful university” that testifies to the squalor and physical deterioration of a university campus in the south of France, Marseille or Toulouse I think. It’s essentially a youtube montage of photos of decrepit university spaces; the photos are also collected at Picasa.

decrepit radiator

At times, the mold approaches the complexity of mountaintop lichens, or perhaps it’s more like a spontaneous display of abstract art.

At any rate, I’m taking the liberty of reposting the photos here with English translation, because I don’t think it would have much impact just to give the translation without the images. Obviously, the images belong to their photographers, who unfortunately remain anonymous.

The photos that follow are the result of a photography contest organized at a university in the south of France, calling on students to testify about their working conditions.

Thus here you have the daily life of the students at this university. Some basic rules of survival impose themselves.

Rule number 1: Never hug the walls.

belle univ 1a

[It is dangerous to approach the foot of these buildings.]

belle univ 1b

belle univ 1c

belle univ 1d

Rule number 2: To enter a classroom takes courage.

belle univ 2a

belle univ 2b

… but the light is at the end of the corridor.

belle univ 2j

belle univ 2k

belle univ 2l

Rule number 3: Once in class, try to abstract from the environment and concentrate solely on the teacher.

belle univ 3a

belle univ 3b

Rule number 4: Expect to bring warm clothes in winter.

belle univ 4a

belle univ 4b

belle univ 4c

Rule number 5: The toilets are at the bottom of the stairs. Don’t go there unless you absolutely need to, and even then not without psychological preparations.

belle univ 5a

belle univ 5b

belle univ 5c

belle univ 5d

belle univ 5e

Rule number 6: If the atmosphere is too oppressive, don’t hesitate to get some air on a terrace…

belle univ 6a

… sit down at a cafe for a while…

belle univ 6b

… or play sports for a bit.

belle univ 6c

Rule number 7: Make sure to locate the emergency exits.

belle univ 7a

belle univ 7b

[i.e.: For safety reasons, the emergency exit is closed.]

In this context one would like to be able to believe the statements of our leaders:

Nicolas Sarkozy (speech of Jan 22, 2009)
“Higher education, research and innovation are our absolute priority.”
“I firmly believe that the universities should benefit from full ownership of their heritage.” Thanks!

Valérie Pécresse (from
“The year 2009 is distinguished by an unprecedented raise in the university budgets: every one of them is seeing its budget rise by at least ten percent.”
“The universities have seen a 43% rise in their safety budgets compared to 2008.”

However in this university:

The budget has risen less than inflation in 2009 while the university has assumed new costs within the framework of university autonomy.

Seven lines for technical and administrative jobs will be cut in 2009.

To continue thinking a bit about the visual culture of French universities, we have here a particularly interesting metacommentary on the physical environment, because it’s so clear here that the conditions of the buildings are a major concern for the locals. The unstated prerequisite of this commentary is approximately: “our buildings are falling apart and that is outrageous.” But here the sarcastic tone serves to re-emphasize the condemnation of the physical environment’s decrepitude, and in passing, at the end, to further condemn the Sarkozy government’s treatment of universities. Towards this end, the decrepit bathroom sink becomes a political signifier. The ludicrous signs – the emergency exit “closed for safety reasons” – are recontextualized as products of the government’s apparent political hypocrisy.

Oddly, there are almost no people in these photographs – the most we see is a long finger that apparently has just wiped some dust off a radiator, a photographer’s sneaker in the bottom of a frame. It’s as if the universities were abandoned as well as decrepit. I won’t pretend that I’m not a little shocked myself when I see this degree of physical decay, especially in comparison to the ostentatiously pristine environment of wealthy American universities, but it’s nonetheless interesting to trace how the built environment erupts into local political consciousness. If the decay of these buildings is recognized locally as a scandal, as an exception to the norms of academic space, then this seems to pose the inverse question as to what kinds of academic space are unmarked and pass as normal, acceptable. Does it have to be the traditional architecture of the Sorbonne? Or is it just necessary to have academic space without visible signs of decay?